By interconnecting crops, tools and vehicles to smart devices and sensors, farmers will be able to produce more while saving money and conserving natural resources by making the right decision at the right time based on data.

Precision Farming and Automation

Joeval Martins | Rajant Corp

Please tell us a bit about your company and its role in the agriculture industry.

Rajant is a technology innovation company with a focus on delivering leading-edge wireless network solutions that address many of the challenges and deficiencies of modern day Wi-Fi. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, Rajant’s highly productive team of developers, engineers, sales and marketing, and support teams all share in the vision of enabling industrial enterprises to implement wireless network infrastructures that ensure highly reliable, scalable and secure communications while delivering on the promises of today’s Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).  

Incorporated in 2003, Rajant’s Kinetic Mesh networks are made up of intelligent nodes called BreadCrumbs, which are powered by its proprietary InstaMesh routing protocol. These networks have been successfully deployed across the globe and offer customers sustainable investments that change the way they deliver voice, video and data, while bringing real-time data to streamline operations and positively impact decision making.

Rajant is significant for the agriculture industry because it offers the only technology that supports truly mobile networks.

The agriculture industry provides the entire world with food, and, in turn, Rajant provides the industry with connectivity that allows them to utilize and link all the technologies being developed for this market.

 

How will precision farming help solve current industry challenges?

Precision farming and the tools and devices it comprises will allow the gathering and analysis of real-time data, helping farmers make better decisions.

For example, a plant grower needs to analyze its crop to ensure the crop is absorbing all the nutrients the grower adds to the soil. Current methods of doing this are slow; a grower must send the plant somewhere to be analyzed in a lab. By the time the lab can produce results, the window to make corrections to soil nutrients may have closed, and yield will be lower than it could have been. With precision farming tools like soil nutrient sensors, soil pH and nutrients can be tracked in real time and alerts can signal farmers that a correction is needed.

By interconnecting crops, tools and vehicles to smart devices and sensors, farmers will be able to produce more while saving money and conserving natural resources by making the right decision at the right time based on data.

 

How can autonomous equipment help achieve peak productivity while also keeping costs low and enabling sustainable practices?

Precision farming uses IoT/IIoT devices and other automated equipment to increase efficiency while remaining sustainable, with machines working day and night to produce a higher yield.

Farming environments that enable IoT/IIoT can employ a host of cutting-edge technologies that enable efficiency, productivity and sustainability, including:

  • Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation to enhance the precision of GPS position data;

  • “Smart crop” sensors to monitor soil hydration, pH and nutrient levels;

  • Industrial/ag robots like autonomous milking and weeding machines to quickly perform standard farming tasks;

  • Autonomous tractors that work in tandem to till, seed and plant;

  • Drones for aerial surveillance, fertilizing and spraying;

  • Precision planters that maintain consistent seed placement and soil depth;

  • Connected silos, which provide constant data on storage condition and volume; and

  • Irrigation flow control, which reduces human error and lessens water waste.

 

Can you give us a few real world examples of this?

Many parts of the world are suffering from water shortages, yet agriculture producers require it as one of the staples for producing food. A lack of water is worsened by inefficient irrigation systems, and more than 40 percent of the global rural population use river basins that are considered “water scarce.”

Several connected technologies are being developed or are in use to conserve water:

Chilean researchers created an artificial intelligence irrigation system intended to increase water efficiency. Pilot-tested on blueberry cultivation, the system is expected to save 70 percent more water than other irrigation methods for these types of crops using measuring instruments equipped with wireless sensors.

In an automated vertical vegetable factory in Japan, where everything after seeding will be done by machines – watering, trimming, harvesting – automation has reduced labor costs by 50 percent. Additionally, “Techno Farm” recycles 98 percent of the water used in cultivation by using Nano-filtration technology, which allows water to be reintroduced while also capturing water from the vegetables. This results in a system that utilizes just one percent of the water outdoor cultivation would use.

 

What are current and future challenges to achieving IoT/automation in ag?

Farmers right now generally lack the right type of network for IoT/automated applications. On their own, wired, cellular, LTE and traditional Wi-Fi mesh networks simply are not built for the bandwidth demands and mobility these applications will place on a network. While there are plenty of new technologies on the market that agriculture operations can begin to implement to achieve autonomy, they all rely on a high-bandwidth, low-latency network that can move with devices, equipment and vehicles, adapt to changes in network topology and environmental conditions, and provide ubiquitous coverage. So far, many farms in the world lack reliable connectivity in the field – or even connectivity at all – and IoT and automation won’t happen without a way to ensure that.

 

How would a farmer reading this interview best begin the process of adopting automation in his/her operation?

The stepwise approach has five major levels that allow a business to increase its use of autonomous applications gradually:

  • At level one, stationary autonomy uses static smart equipment to monitor environmental changes and critical agricultural data and alert farmers to important changes. These assets include soil sensors to measure moisture, pH, nutrient levels, crop health and growth; equipment telematics for predictive maintenance, fuel management and more; and cameras with AI vision to monitor livestock, identify disease and more.

  • Level two comprises semi-autonomous machinery – machinery that can perform some tasks on its own, but must be supervised and/or managed by a human worker. Examples include auto-steer and guided tractors controlled via tablet or desktop; RTK/GPS systems for widespread planting and spreading; and remotely guided unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) for perimeter surveillance.

  • At level three are the single-task autonomous fleets: swarms of farming robots such as drones, fully autonomous UGVs and autonomous robots that work together to complete simple tasks that otherwise humans would handle. Crop-spraying drones can cover large areas of acreage more efficiently, while precision-pruning robots can make a cut every five seconds. Cow-milking robots can learn each individual cow’s profile to apply the right amount of pressure and extract an appropriate amount of milk.

  • The fourth level dispatches complex autonomous equipment that do not require the assistance of a human worker and can perform tasks that humans cannot – often multiple tasks at once. Such equipment includes precision planters that maintain consistent seed placement and soil depth; autonomous irrigation systems that intelligently optimize water flow and usage; and “see and spray” machines that can identify weeds from crops and precisely spray pesticides to eliminate only the problem plants.

  • Finally, level five reveals fully autonomous IIoT operations. These advanced agricultural operations will invest solely in autonomous equipment that performs all functions to enhance speed, productivity and yield; power sustainable practices; gather farm data for insight and visibility; keep costs low; and easily maintain regulatory compliance.

 

A reliable wireless network is required for precision farming and automation. What are connectivity/network requirements for these applications/what should ag business owners/managers look for in a network?

Look for a wireless network that offers:

  • High bandwidth, to support bandwidth-intensive streaming of data and video from diverse sensors and monitoring applications.

  • Signal resilience, because a network must keep operators in constant control of the systems they’re guiding, even as equipment moves around silos and large machinery that can block or interfere with signals.

  • Machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity and autonomy support. A network must allow equipment to remain in constant communication to autonomously coordinate tasks with each other.

  • Total mobility. A network must support mission-critical mobile connectivity, to keep autonomous assets continually within coverage no matter where they travel over vast farmland.

 

What do ag businesses need to do to prepare for automation and precision farming? What should they incorporate into their strategic plans over the next 1-10 years to get ready?

The agricultural industry already understands they type of IT and telecom technologies they need inside the office and labs, but not everyone has started incorporating cutting-edge technologies in the field – and that’s critical, because that’s where the money comes from. If you don’t have the technology in the last meter that provides the data that will let farmers be most productive, all that office technology doesn’t do much good. Start getting the right technologies in place now to get ready for the IoT revolution – and ensure that backbone technologies like IT and telecom services are future ready and able to grow as a farm’s autonomous application usages expand.

Education is another critical component. Invest in knowing where the flaws in an operation are, and how technology might be able to fix them. Learn what can make the company more profitable based on a variety of scenarios. Use data analytics to understand what the operation needs to be well positioned in the market and sell products at the best local, regional or worldwide price. Ensure production can be tracked with definable metrics that correlate to the needs of modern consumers, who, in turn, want to know every step of the process for what they consume.

 

What is your vision of the utopian agricultural industry in 10 years with full adoption of automation and precision farming?

In 10 years, with full adoption of automation and precision farming, I see a farm with autonomous tractors and vehicles everywhere, drones monitoring operations and security via real-time high-definition video, cows being milked by robots, crops being sowed and fertilized by intelligent robots, and farmers who are as well versed in technology as they are in growing and producing.

 
 
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

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